To what heights – and depths – of emotion can we be moved by text in a game? This is the question posed by two of the best games I’ve played recently: Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story.
Perhaps I shouldn’t call them games so much as I should call them interactive works of epistolary fiction, in which the player pieces together a story from documents and messages. The two titles contain very little in the way of abstract systems – apart from a couple of puzzles, there are no rules to be mastered here. This doesn’t mean the player is uninvolved! While both games rely on plenty of text, they also deploy that interactivity to good effect. They would not work in any other medium, something we’ll see with Digital.
It’s Christmas Eve! For an uplifting song, I give you something that’s not actually from a soundtrack — “Kia Hora Te Marino” (“May Peace Be Widespread”), from Christopher Tin’s “Calling All Dawns” album (1). The liner notes describe it as a “traditional Maori blessing”, and its tone and lyrics are a wonderful fit for the season. Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!
Full credits for song: “Kia Hora Te Marino” was composed by Christopher Tin, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and featuring lyricist Jerome Kavanagh and backing vocalists Ben Mullon, John Mullon, Jordan Young and Tangaroatuane.
Drox Operative is the latest title from Soldak Entertainment, an indie developer of action-RPGs (Depths of Peril, Din’s Curse) renowned for their dynamic worlds. Drox transports that concept from fantasy into space opera – its galaxy is filled with alien empires, who fight, intrigue, and negotiate amongst themselves. As one of the titular mercenaries, players accept quests from these empires, fight space monsters and rival empires, plant their patrons’ flags over unclaimed worlds – and try to make sure they’re on the winning side.
On paper, this is a wonderful concept, and it’s given me a couple of memorable moments. For example, at one point I wanted to explore a hazardous, monster-filled region of frontier space. To make my life easier, I took a quest to colonise a nearby planet, then stuck around to defend the new settlement. The result: now I had somewhere to repair, and the owner of the new colony was now both stronger and better disposed toward me. And there is a certain dark satisfaction in teaching recalcitrant alien empires why messing with a Drox operative is a bad idea! Unfortunately, these cool experiences have been the exception for me. As an overall package, Drox falls flat for me; while I can quibble with various “micro” aspects of the game’s execution (1), I think my ultimate problem lies with two key aspects of the game’s design:
Whole games have been built around this question – most notably 2001 classic Ico, which cast players as a young boy who had to escape a witch’s castle together with a girl named Yorda. Together, the two made a team: Yorda was frail, but she was the only one who could open the castle’s magically sealed doors. And it worked: Ico is one of my all-time favourites. Subsequent games – such as the modern Princes of Persia – ran with this idea, but implemented it the same way: your companion was always computer-controlled, and there was a gameplay reason you needed to work with her (for good measure, it was always a her). Thatgamecompany’s Journey is the latest game to tackle this question… but this time, it puts its own spin on the formula.
In Journey, you play a cloaked traveller who has to cross the desert to reach a distant mountain. There is no dialogue, no narrative, and no exposition. Who is the traveller? The answer seems to be “a pilgrim”, but this isn’t stated outright anywhere – it’s something I deduced. Is the pilgrim a he, a she, or an it? I imagined my pilgrim as a she, but that was pure whimsy. Did she have family or friends before deciding to cross the desert? Who knows. Journey’s gameplay mechanics are equally minimalistic: mostly, the pilgrim walks towards her destination. She can use the magic in her scarf to jump or fly, and she can recharge her scarf by chirping musically when standing near bits of cloth scattered throughout the world – streamers, banners, magic carpets, and the like. This is pleasant enough – controlling the pilgrim is smooth and fluid, whether she’s on the sand or soaring through the air – but that’s about it as far as game mechanics go. There is no real challenge, except for looking/walking around, wondering where to go next. There are neither puzzles nor combat. There isn’t even a Game Over screen – it is impossible to die. The overall game is quite short, just a couple of hours. In this regard, Journey feels a lot like thatgamecompany’s previous title, Flower.
Long before video game music took off in the West, the Final Fantasy series had a long tradition of beautiful vocal and orchestral music — all the way back to the NES/SNES era! Developer Squaresoft circumvented the technical limitations of the time by re-arranging its in-game music into orchestral, piano, and vocal CD albums, which remain a treat to this day. Below, I’ve linked two of my favourites, both from the 1994 “Final Fantasy: Pray” vocal album. “Into the Light” (Japanese: “Hikari no naka e”) is based on “Theme of Love” from Final Fantasy IV, while “Voyage” is based on “Boundless Ocean” from Final Fantasy III (NES). Enjoy!
Full credits for songs: Both songs were composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Both were sung by Risa Ohki.
For one month, you followed me as I played through Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the successor to one of the greatest games of all time. Now that I’ve finished, I can give my verdict: this is the true heir to the original, both in its strengths and its weaknesses.
At heart, both 1994’s X-COM and 2012’s XCOM are stories about heroism. That is something so many games claim to offer, but so few truly do. Heroism is not a power fantasy. Heroism is not about being the toughest guy alive (action games), or the sneakiest, or the cleverest general (Total War). Heroism is the courage to stand up against overwhelming odds, to endure loss and sacrifice on the road to victory. This is the experience that XCOM delivers in spades. Like its predecessor, XCOM follows a handful of outnumbered, outgunned, and oh-so-fragile men and women in their struggle against a technologically superior alien invasion. They are few enough, and diverse enough in their capabilities, to be distinct: I knew every name and face in my barracks. That makes it hurt all the more when they die – which they do often and permanently. For those odds, at least on “Classic” difficulty, really are overwhelming. On the world map, the aliens often launch three attacks at a time, while XCOM can only respond to one. Once in battle, XCOM operatives will usually die in two or three solid hits. But – and this is key – thanks to the context provided by the game’s strategic layer, that sacrifice never feels in vain. Slowly but surely, those brave underdogs will turn the tide of the war. With each battle, the survivors grow more skilled. With each pile of recovered alien loot, the survivors become better equipped. With each XCOM satellite and fighter plane (their construction funded by that loot), the world takes one step back from the brink. With each act of bravery by your soldiers, XCOM comes one step closer to victory.
It seems all over for the crew of the airship Babbling Goldfish. On one side – the enemy, two airships bigger and heavier than ours. On the other – the ruins of a vast, ancient airship, still lodged vertically in the desert sand. Our hull and engines are being ripped to shreds, and the airship wreck blocks the most direct escape. Over voice chat, the consensus sounds in my ears: we’re going down. But manning the helm, I see one last chance. I steer us between towering pieces of wreckage – bare planks to our left, a piece of red-plated debris to our right. And the incoming barrage dies down. Did the wreck hide us from our pursuers? Or did they simply get bored and drift off? Whatever it is, we’re safe for now. Safe to make repairs, and safe to eventually rejoin the fight…
That is one of the stories I have accumulated in my last couple of weeks playing Guns of Icarus Online, a team-based airship combat title from indie studio Muse Games. (You might remember my very brief mention of the game last year, when it was just a trailer and a cool concept.) In Icarus, players take on the roles of airship crew – gunners, engineers, or pilots, with four crew members to one airship. (Note that the game is strictly PVP; while most unoccupied crew slots are filled by bots, each airship must be skippered by a human player.) Matches involve two teams (2-4 airships per side, depending on the map) either trying to score a set number of kills, or hold objective locations long enough to win. Each ship’s captain can choose between six available ship types, each of which can be further customised via choice of weapons – for instance, do I mount a flak cannon (long-ranged and best against the enemy hull), a carronade firing grapeshot (close-ranged balloon-popper), or a Manticore rocket launcher (long-ranged disabler) in my main gun slot? And depending on their class, crew members can choose which repair/buff items, ammo types, and piloting boosts to take into battle. Once in the game, the slow, deliberate combat feels closer to MechWarrior than to the typical FPS – ships take a while to reach their destination, and guns don’t fire that quickly. This changes once the ship takes damage – then it becomes a frantic game of ohnotheengineisred, and Someone fix the hull before we all die!
This week’s song is something I guarantee you’ll find unique: “Exceeding Love”, the opening song of PS2 RPG Suikoden III. I’ve linked two versions below. The first is the actual in-game version, presented as part of the game’s intro movie — my favourite intro movie ever. The visuals and music complement each other perfectly, and as an added bonus, every single character and event depicted in that video — dragonfly-mounted warriors firebombing a village, knights charging into battle, a boy facing off against a dragon, torchbearers filing through the night, whole armies on the march — actually features in the game! The second version of the song is a clearer, sharper, deeper remix that I prefer, though sadly this one lacks the accompanying visuals. Enjoy!
Full credits for song: The game’s soundtrack was composed by Michiru Yamane, Keiko Fukami, and Masahiko Kimura. “Exceeding Love” was performed by the band Himekami.
North America, 1 September 2015. The aliens’ forward base on Earth, the wee hours of the morning. Above the landing bay, a shape appears: XCOM’s Skyranger, followed moments later by a hover SHIV and five of XCOM’s finest operatives. The soldiers rappel down into the base, plasma rifles at the ready. Little do they expect what lies ahead: an anti-climax.